How to Move Smoothly from Rookie to Print-Shop Manager
This is the story of a screen printer who, after years of hands-on experience on the production floor, gets promoted to a shop-management position. Discover the struggles he faces during the transition and how he overcomes them.
I received an e-mail this month from a reader with the kind of problem that we all hope to have at least once or twice in our careers. The reader, who I’ll refer to as John, was just offered the management job he had been working toward for the last 12 years. The package came with a nice salary and a fat bonus clause that could finally give him and his family the financial security they sorely needed. It didn’t take him very long to accept the offer.
John started his screen-printing journey in his late 20s after serving for a few years in the Navy, and he discovered that the organizational skills he had gained in the service translated well to the print-shop environment. Couple that with a strong work ethic and the desire to learn and master all aspects of the business, and you can see why he eventually ended up running the operation. A stint in the screen room turned into a job on the press, which in turn led to a supervisor position. When the shop manager retired a few years later, it was a foregone conclusion that John would take over—and he did.
Like all new managers, John had been chafing for a while to make some changes and put some of his own ideas into practice. Some worked, and some didn’t, and he was forced to learn a few more lessons the difficult way, but he eventually made a success of it. I called him after I got his e-mail, and he told me that he thought the most important thing he learned was that he could actually do this job pretty well and that he really liked the challenge of a new problem to solve every day. The business recently expanded, and the owners bought out a competitor in the next state. The company offered John the opportunity to relocate and sort out the mess that the previous management had left behind. This was the problem that he discussed in his e-mail to me.
John searched online and located an article I wrote about a consulting job that I tackled, and it sounded a lot like the situation that he was facing. He wanted to know if I had any suggestions that might make his transition go a little more smoothly. He also noted that the bonus clause only would kick in when the shop started to be profitable again, and he wondered what changes I could suggest that might make that happen a little more quickly.
The new acquisition had been mismanaged for several years. The previous owners invested very little into the upkeep of the equipment, and all the presses were old. John had a budget for a couple of new presses, which he expected would jump start his quest for the elusive bonus. I warned him that the presses would be next to useless unless he first put in place the type of processes that would be able to handle the increased demand. New equipment will eventually save the day, but the first task is to enable the existing organization to cope with the changes that this will bring about.
In my next few columns, I will discuss strategies I have developed over the years as a consultant to address this sort of situation. Some of you might find it useful to look at your production model and consider the changes your replacement would make if he or she were to take over your job tomorrow. I suspect that some constructive thought about the possibility once in a while could focus our minds in a very positive way. So where do we start?
The worst thing you can do in this situation is to walk into your shop and start cracking the whip. You have to assume that the workforce is less than happy to have a new boss, and they will be very suspicious of anyone walking in with a superior attitude. Always remember that their workplace is very precious to them, they spend more time here than they do anywhere else, and however dysfunctional it might be, it is their workplace.
How would you feel if someone came into your home and immediately started criticizing the way you run your household? You would probably think that the person is rude and obnoxious, and you would begin to figure out ways to get him back out onto the street. You certainly wouldn’t cooperate with him in any way. This is how your new employees will react when you start pointing out all their deficiencies.
Spend your first week getting to know people and letting them get to know you. It’s also a good time to sit back and watch what’s going on. The hardest thing at this point is resisting the urge to jump in and start making changes. Follow several jobs through the entire manufacturing process, and talk with the operators at every step. Once you start this dialogue, the tendency is for the discussion to degenerate into a litany of complaints about the lousy machinery or the poor quality of the artwork, and soon you are plumbing the depths of your employees’ professional depression.
Don’t let this happen. Stop the conversation at this point and ask them to spend some time thinking about the one change that could be implemented without a lot of expense that they think would improve the part of the process in which they are involved. Their suggestions will surprise you. If you feel that their solution is practical, let them implement it. The fact that it’s their idea will force them to get behind it and make it work. Pair this with their desire to impress the new boss with their abilities, and you have a win-win situation that turns the negativity into something positive. You also can get a good idea of where the real talent lies in your new workplace, giving you a window into the character of your new employees.
Keep an eye out for the person who will make your transition even more difficult. Over the years, I have noticed that there’s always one person on the shop floor who believes that he or she has been passed over and should rightly hold the position that you appear to have stolen from them. However illogical it may seem to you, it makes perfect sense to them, and they will undermine everything you try to do until you address the problem directly. It will save you a lot of pain in the long run if you can figure out early on who that person is and start working out the best way to get them on your side.
Change will seem like a very slow and lengthy process, so establish some data that you can use to measure your progress. Figure out what the production figures are the day you walk in so that you have a credible bottom line from which to work. Update them every day before you go home so that you can see if things are improving. I once worked with a process engineer who taught me always to have a printout of these figures in my back pocket to keep things in focus, especially when you find yourself bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of running a shop.
It’s easy to lose sight of the forest when you’re lost deep among the trees, so keeping track of productivity allows you to see immediately if things are declining and quickly make any necessary adjustments Alternately, a quick glance at improving figures can give you the boost to keep pressing on through difficult periods. The best part of having that piece of paper in your back pocket is that it’s always handy to answer difficult questions from upper management when they feel that things aren’t moving along as quickly as they’d hoped. The process engineer showed me how to adopt my best Jimmy Stewart look and fish in my pants and pull out this piece of paper. I’d then casually remark that production appeared to be up by 20% since I took over and overhead had dropped by about the same amount. There is not much room for argument after that.
In my next column, I will tackle the practical problems involved in turning around a print shop and see whether we can’t come up with a strategy that will quickly deliver the bonus that John so badly wants. Meanwhile, get out a large piece of paper and start mapping out a flow chart, beginning with the moment the order arrives in your inbox all the way through to the moment it leaves. Don’t worry when it starts to get messy and complicated, because it’s the best and only way for you to really understand what you are dealing with. By the time the chart is finished, you should know more than anyone else involved in your pro-duction process about how things are being done on the shop floor. The solutions already will have begun to become more obvious.
Gordon Roberts has a history in screen-printing production management that spans more than 25 years. He has held supervisory positions in shops that represent a broad spectrum of application areas and markets, including printed electronics, apparel, signage, and retail graphics. Roberts has presented training courses on the basics of screen-printing production and on shop management for the Screentech Institute and is presently a consultant for the screen industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.